You may think a flood can’t happen to you because you don’t live in a low-lying area or along a hurricane-prone coast, but in fact, almost any home can flood. Heavy rains and rising rivers can also leave your home a wet mess or worse.
The one good bit of news about flooding is that it rarely happens with no notice. Modern meteorology gives us plenty of warning for hurricanes and violent storms, and rivers’ flood stages are monitored closely. While advance warning won’t let you pick up your entire house and move it to safety, advance planning can keep you from sustaining needless damage from flooding.
Although my family and I were safe in Galveston when she came through New Orleans, Katrina taught me lessons I wish I hadn’t had to learn the hard way. We expected to be gone a week at most; we wound up in a hotel room for a month. When we finally returned and began cleaning up, what hurt the most was finding destroyed possessions that I knew could have been saved if I’d known that hurricane preparedness means more than just boarding up windows and bringing in lawn furniture.
Store Things In High Places
Flood damage doesn’t happen only when your home takes on many feet of water. Even a few inches of flooding can wreak havoc on your flooring and walls. While you can’t move everything out of the way or put everything in your attic, you can prevent the loss of much of your property simply by making a habit of keeping everything off the floor.
Take a moment to think about everything in your home that’s lower than six inches. Antique rugs, shoes, boxes of paperwork, art that you haven’t had the chance to put on your walls yet, old college notebooks, boxes of photographs, books on the lowest shelves of bookcases–even a little flood water will sweep them all away. Keep shoes in shoe trees or on shelving in your closet and reserve the bottom shelf of your bookcase for waterproof items like DVDs or decorative ceramic pieces. If your evacuation is imminent, roll up rugs and move electronics to high ground.
I was lucky with Katrina. The home we had then was on relatively high ground and had only a few inches of flood water that rose slowly and receded within a couple of days. Still, that mere half a foot of flooding was more than enough to cost us.
Remove or Pin Up Dust Ruffles and TrailingTrim
Although your bed frame will likely withstand a flood, your bedding can’t. Dust ruffles on your bed are lovely, but in a flood, they trail in the water and wick it up to soak your mattresses, causing them to mildew. Tuck the ruffle between your mattresses and well out of the way of flood water or remove it entirely before you leave your house for an evacuation.
The same goes for decorative fringe or dust flaps on upholstered furniture. While you probably can’t remove sewn-on trim or dust flaps, you can tack or tape it out of the way securely with safety pins or duct tape. It’s possible to clean muddy residue from wooden or metal chair legs, but nothing will remove the mold and mildew that can grow in upholstery if it stays wet for any length of time.
My street had minimal flooding, yet almost every home had stained, mildewed mattresses piled out front for the post-Katrina cleanup crews to handle. The flood itself never touched them, but the water moving up dust ruffles left them soaked and ruined. Mattresses aren’t cheap, and people rebuilding after a flood can ill afford that extra expense.
Check the Clothing in Your Closet
If you’re fleeing a hurricane, chances are it’s summer or early fall–far too warm for anyone on the Gulf Coast to consider packing coats and too stressful a time to want to bring along an evening gown. Long coats and dresses are susceptible to flood water. If even the bottom inch of a long garment gets wet, water will climb it via capillary action and destroy not only that article of clothing, but possibly neighboring items as well. Before you leave, take a quick look in your closet. Drape the hem of any item that’s visibly longer than the rest over the closet bar or another clothes hanger to keep it clear of the water.
One wool cape ruined half my wardrobe and left the other side of my closet untouched during Katrina. If I’d thought to take thirty seconds to move the hem of that cape, I’d have saved some well-loved garments and hundreds of dollars.
Empty Your Refrigerator (Or at Least Bag The Contents)
When a hurricane is on the way, trash pick-up stops. Not only are trash cans a danger in hurricane winds, but the sanitation workers may themselves be leaving town. Your best bet is to throw everything out of your refrigerator and freezer before you evacuate, but that may not be possible if you’ve waited too long.
If you’ve missed the trash pick-up deadline, then dump everything in your refrigerator into one or two large garbage bags and put the bag back in the fridge. Do the same for your freezer. If you’re fortunate, your home will not lose power at all or will only be without electricity for a few hours. If the worst happens and your refrigerator has no electricity for days or even weeks, you’ll have a much easier time holding your breath and disposing of all the contents in a couple of big bags. It may even save you from having to buy a new refrigerator.
You might be tempted to unpack everything and eat what’s in your freezer if it’s still frozen when you get home. Remember, though, that what’s frozen now could have spent hours at room temperature; refrozen food is unsafe to eat. If you can’t bear the thought of losing that much food, there’s a way to tell if what’s in your freezer has stayed frozen throughout a power outage if you plan ahead. Place a pencil atop a couple of ice cubes in your freezer before you leave. If the pencil is still on the cubes and undisturbed when you get home, then your power was never off for long enough for food to thaw and refreeze. If the pencil’s embedded in a frozen puddle, toss everything; it could make you quite ill. The rule here is: When in doubt, throw it out.
Despite only losing power for a day and a half or so, our refrigerator was a vile mess when we returned from our month-long Katrina evacuation. No amount of scrubbing could get the stench out; it was strong enough to nauseate anyone unwise enough to open the door, and I wondered if anything that smelled so horrible could even be a safe place to store food. We wound up having to buy a new refrigerator, another expense that could have been avoided if we’d remembered to throw everything out or bag it before we left for Galveston.
Don’t Trust Fragile Furniture
Pre-fabricated particle board furniture that you assemble at home is sturdy enough in most cases, but not if you have standing water or swift-moving flood in your home. Water makes wood swell; soaking particle board in it for long enough will eventually break the material down into its constituent wood pulp and binder. Water is also heavy and, if flowing quickly, will topple light wicker or particle board furnishings, especially if the pieces are top-heavy (a glass-topped table with a rattan base, for example).
If you live in a low-lying area or outside of flood protection zones, consider keeping breakable or delicate items in something other than particle board or rattan bookcases. Even a few inches of standing water can cause these materials to crumble or come undone, while flowing water can push them around and knock anything on it into the water.
With only a couple of days of soaking, a bookcase in my home swelled and dissolved at its base and dumped its contents into the flood, ruining books and breaking glassware as well as leaving a layer of messy wood pulp throughout the whole room. I still buy the economical pre-fab bookcases, but I’ve learned to moor them to the wall and keep only paperbacks in them–no valuable books or breakables.
The Final Tally
If I were to estimate our wholly unnecessary Katrina losses (and not counting things like photographs and other mementos that have no price), I’d put it at around $3,500.00. That includes one unbearably stinky refrigerator, two sets of mattresses and the linens on them, two rugs, at least a hundred and fifty books, half my clothing, and more shoes than I care to admit to owning. And we were wildly lucky. Our home only got six inches of water and spent at most two days without power. By Katrina’s standards, that was a loving kiss compared to the fury she showed others.
If your home floods, nothing can prevent damage entirely. Your baseboards, wall-to-wall carpeting, and the lower half of your plaster-board walls will likely need to be replaced even if the flooding was minimal. Cleaning up and setting everything right after a flood is an ordeal–a bigger one than I’d previously imagined it could be. But by learning from my mistakes, you might spare yourself the additional and needless anguish of losing things you know in retrospect could have been salvaged.